Why we remain silent on overseas issues such as the Gezi protests

Recent events in Turkey have given me the opportunity to address a question that is raised with the Dialogue Society every time a significant incident occurs overseas: ‘why does the Dialogue Society remain silent on such incidents?’ I will try to explain the Dialogue Society’s position on commenting on overseas incidents and issues and then relate it to the recent developments in Turkey.

The Dialogue Society was founded in 1999 by people who wanted it to focus on domestic dialogue without taking formal positions on issues or developments overseas unless they have a direct bearing on community relations or societal wellbeing here in the UK. This position has been maintained since. What this means is that while, to achieve its objective of facilitating domestic dialogue, the Dialogue Society will organise all kinds of events on all types of issues (including, on rare occasions, on overseas issues, recognising that they can have an impact on local relations and that so long as they bring diverse people and communities together the topic of discussion is of secondary importance) the Dialogue Society itself will not issue formal statements on overseas issues. This position is evident from our consistent practice over the years and is also explained on our website.

Since 1999 the Dialogue Society has issued many statements. So far only two relate to overseas in accordance with the caveat stated above. One statement was issued on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the grounds of its obvious relevance to Al-Qaeda type terrorist threats here in this country and the other in response to the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway, since the perpetrator of those attacks was said to have links with extremist groups in the UK, he claimed to be attacking ‘Multiculturalism’ which is the subject of live debate here, and we were beginning to see a resurgence of far right groups in the UK. Other than these two statements which directly relate to community relations and societal wellbeing in the UK, we have not issued a single statement on any other issue regarding overseas issues, incidents or developments however important they are in their own right such as the Syria crisis and the Palestine-Israel conflict being two obvious examples.

In accordance with this position, we have not issued a single statement on Turkey. We have not issued a statement in support or opposition of the Turkish government or the Turkish state; we did not issue a statement on Turkey’s monumental constitutional referendum or on any of the other significant developments in Turkey.

There are many reasons for us not wanting to comment on overseas issues. Some of these have been explained on our online FAQs (see question 10, ‘What are your views on intractable conflicts in other parts of the world? Why do you remain silent on such issues?’). Briefly, and without repeating what’s already available via the above link, perhaps I can add that part of our rationale is based on the concern to counterbalance the insatiable appetite some community groups have for news coming out of their country of origin at the expense of keeping up to date and concerned with what’s happening here in their country of residence. From personal experience, I know for example of the Turkish speaking community’s fascination with developments in Turkey. We believe that this can distract from developing a sense of belonging and a sense of concern respectively in and for this country. Another reason for our approach is that by frequently commenting on issues relating to their country of origin, community organisations risk transferring and transplanting grievances and problems that relate to another part of the world to the UK by taking sides or appearing to do so. What is more, we want to avoid having to explain why we have commented on one overseas issue but not on another since we get a lot of requests to comment on a range of overseas developments; we want to focus our finite time and resources on what’s happening here and to remain consistent with the position held so far. While some may not agree with our position and/or our reasons for adopting it, I hope that it is clear that those reasons have nothing to do with taking sides on a particular issue.

Some people expect us to comment on issues relating to Muslim majority countries, others on issues relating to Turkey. This expectation is based on the error of conflating the identity of the founders and the inspiration behind the Dialogue Society with the corporate identity of the Society itself. While one may influence the other, we deliberately keep these two identities separate. There is a difference between being a Muslim-led organisation and being a Muslim organisation. The Dialogue Society was founded and is led by British Muslims of Turkish background but it is neither a Muslim nor a Turkish organisation. We are and want to be an organisation for all people in the UK, of all kinds of identities and beliefs, focusing on domestic issues relating to local dialogue and community relations. Because such confusion does exist we are even more wary of issuing statements on Turkey or other ‘Muslim countries’ because doing so will perpetuate the confusion. If we comment on Gezi today because of our team’s Turkishness what are we to say to those that wish for us to comment on other overseas issues because of our team’s ‘Muslimness’ (what is more, not all our team are Turkish or Muslim and we have a very diverse range of Advisors). For what it’s worth, I will dedicate a separate column to this issue alone and elaborate further there.

All of that being the case, our silence on any overseas issue, including recent developments and protests in Turkey, cannot be read in any other way than what it is, that is the Dialogue Society remaining consistent in its position on not commenting on overseas issues. It certainly can’t be read as an indication of our view on the matter or as support for one side over the other. It may be that in future we revise this position but until now we have upheld it as proven by our practice to date.

I will now turn to explaining my personal views on the on the recent developments in Turkey. What I say below are my personal views and not those of the Dialogue Society.

First, I have been sharing my views on the matter very clearly via my personal Twitter account. My view is that in a democracy people have the right to peaceful protest, that the initial protest was about the Gezi park and was peaceful, that the disproportionate response caused the protests to swell into demonstrations against the government more generally and contributed to their becoming violent and that there is genuine discontent among some people over the government’s style of governance and over some measures recently introduced. There is no doubt that the government has the right to be in power, that in democracies governments come and go by elections, that the government has a great deal of achievements under its belt, that hijacking peaceful protest through public disorder, violence and vandalism cannot be allowed or condoned and that some groups may have sought to manipulate the protests for their own ends. That said, the government needs to adopt a much more open, inclusive, consultative and dialogic form of governance, valuing different viewpoints and perspectives. It is and can be do too overbearing and sometimes dismissive of other people’s lifestyle choices and sensitivities. Its rhetoric and certain recent decisions reinforce this impression causing resentment among those who do not identify themselves with the governing party. I find that my views on this are in line with the statement issued on the 5th June by the Abant Platform (a body of the Journalists and Writers Foundation of which Fethullah Gülen is the Honorary Chairman). The original Abant statement in Turkish can be accessed here and the English news story on this can be accessed here.

For those interested, Fethullah Gülen (whose teachings and example inspired the founding of the Dialogue Society) has recently given three talks on Turkey. The first directly addresses the recent protests, the second in part alludes to the protests and the third is about the naming of the new Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul. These can be accessed via the following links:-

-6th June. Excerpt: “If you say ‘these people are not standing for their rights’, then you would be denying the innocent/genuine demands of some innocent/genuine people”

Turkish original. English.

-16th June. Excerpt: “For the love of God, let’s live for a while in a [spirit] of brotherhood. No to dominating, no to overpowering, no to pressuring. No to totalitarian systems. No to dictatorial systems.”

Turkish original. English.

-18th June: Gülen recently gave a talk on the naming of the third Bosphorous bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim, in which he said: “For the love of God, let us not forsake the fundamental for detail… Let us not demolish many existing bridges (cultural and emotional links between Sunni and Alevi Turks) for the sake of one bridge (the new bridge named after Yavuz Selim which is said to cause discontent among Turkish Alevis).”

Turkish original. English.

I hope that in addition to our consistent practice to date and to the existing information on our website, this column further clarifies our position on commenting on overseas issues. The questions I’ll address in my next column: what is the corporate identity of the Dialogue Society? is it a Muslim or Turkish organisation?

Dr Ozcan Keles

Dr Ozcan Keles

Chairperson of the Dialogue Society

Ozcan is a non-practising Barrister and member of the Honourable Society of Gray's Inn. He is the Chairperson of the Dialogue Society since 2008; was the Executive Chairperson of the same organisation between 2008 and 2014; the Executive Editor of the peer-reviewed biannual academic Journal of Dialogue Studies since 2014 and a full-time PhD candidate in the sociology of human rights at the University of Sussex. Between 2006 and 2009 he was a research student with Prof Kevin Boyle at the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex, where he held the Scholarship Award of 2006. Ozcan was called to the Bar in 2005 after successfully completing the Bar course at the Inns of Court School of Law. He obtained his LLM in Human Rights Law from SOAS, University of London, in 2002.

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